The Legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis | Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Image: Judge Louis Brandeis in 1915. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein has written a wonderful article about one of the giants of American Jewish history. I want to share it with you, both so you can read it but also to acquaint you with his blog.

https://rabbiedbernstein.com/2016/09/09/the-legacy-of-justice-louis-d-brandeis/

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The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

A Prayer for Love

Image: Hands folded on a prayer book. Photo by voltamax via pixabay.com.

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34

 

This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6

 

 

A Voice from North Carolina

Image: The Black Mountains of North Carolina. Public domain.

Rabbi Stephen Roberts is a colleague and dear friend who wrote a guest editorial for the Boone, NC newspaper, the Watauga Democrat. It appeared on the paper’s website today.  I share it because the situations of lesbians, gay men, transgender persons and bisexuals in North Carolina and Mississippi are much on my mind and in my prayers.

To my Christian readers: I ask that you read this thoughtfully, prayerfully, and consider sharing it.

To all my readers: I welcome discussion, but please as always keep it kind.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar

Jesus’ Teachings Conflict With State Law

As a rabbi, I have always viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a rabbinic colleague of mine from two millennium ago. While studying at seminary, I wrote my 125 pages rabbinic thesis on his words: “The Lord’s Prayer.” He is referred to as “rabbi” 16 different times in Scripture Christians call the “New Testament.”

In Mark 12:31, Jesus, the rabbi, taught: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” In Judaism, our similar teaching by the Rabbi Hillel, of the same period, is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

What then would Jesus do in the following case: Jesus, I and your own pastor/priest/reverend are out to dinner. We have ordered and are about to be served. The owner of the restaurant comes over to our table, and in front of your clergy and Jesus, I am told I will not be served. Further, I am asked to leave and told not to return. The reason given is that the owner had found out I was gay and he did not serve “queers.” I ask you: “What would Jesus do?” Would he agree with this person? I think Mark 2:15 provides the answer. Jesus, the rabbi, would fight for the right of each person in North Carolina — no matter how they are viewed by those around them — to be able to eat a meal in a public facility without having to worry about the discriminatory refusal of service — as can legally take place today here in the state.

I ask you further — what would Jesus do if he and I came to your town to teach about the Lord’s Prayer. When we went to register at the hotel, I am told by the manager that they will not rent me a room because I was gay. Further, he was going to call every hotel in the region and alert them to my being gay so that I would not have a room anywhere in the area. Mark 12:31 makes it clear that Jesus would be horrified that this was both allowed and legal.

Time and time again, Rabbi Jesus went against society to protect those on the margins. He spent his life working to keep them safe, to make sure they were treated well — no matter if society saw them as “sinners.”

Today, here in North Carolina, the state I work in as a rabbi by serving a congregation, I can be refused service and also be removed from any restaurant in the state because I am gay. It is not against the law. Today, here in North Carolina, I can be refused service at any supermarket, pharmacy, gas station, just because I am gay. I can be fired from a job. I can be refused admittance to a college. I can even be denied health care services from hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and nurses.

To treat me this way, to discriminate against me, as someone Jewish is illegal. However, to treat me this way as someone who is gay — is completely legal in North Carolina. The state legislature just passed House Bill 2 and the governor signed the bill, keeping this discrimination the law of the state.
I am left to ask each of you: “What would Jesus do?”

Rabbi Stephen Roberts, MBA, BCC

Rabbi Roberts’ family have deep roots in the Appalachians. He and his family have summered here for more than five decades, he has immediate family that are year-rounders and he is in his third year serving a congregation in the region.

What is AIPAC?

I got this tweet yesterday, and I know it is a concern for a lot of Jews. However, in keeping with my tagline, “Basic Judaism spoken here,” let’s start with a basic question: What is AIPAC?

AIPAC (pronounced “A-pack”) stands for “American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” It is a lobbying organization that promotes pro-Israel policy to the Congress and the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. It has over 100,000 members in the U.S. According to its website, “The mission of AIPAC is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.” Membership in AIPAC is open to anyone regardless of religion, age, political party, or race.

AIPAC is not allied with any political party in the U.S. or in Israel. In the U.S., its annual policy conference invites speakers from both major political parties. It does not rate or endorse candidates for political office, and it is not a PAC (political action committee.) AIPAC members are encouraged to educate their elected officials about the importance of U.S.-Israel ties, and the national organization provides a network for accomplishing this work.

At this writing, AIPAC has confirmed the following speakers to its 2016 policy conference on March 20-22: Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton, Republican Candidate Donald Trump, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Member Robert Menendez, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and behavior has made him a controversial invitee. For more about the controversy, I recommend reading the Reform Movement response to the announcement that he will be a speaker.

AIPAC advocates support for the government in Israel elected by the voters of Israel.It is not involved in Israeli elections, nor does it endorse Israeli candidates or parties.

Critics of AIPAC see it as exerting undue influence on the Congress, and some extreme critics paint it as a group that actually “controls” Congress. It is a lobbying group like many others, made up of and supported by U.S. citizens who want to make sure that their viewpoint is represented in Washington. In that respect it is like the American Association of Retired Persons or the National Rifle Association. We may agree or disagree with the goals of a particular lobby, but under current rules, lobbying is what it takes to get the attention of the Congress.

To learn more about AIPAC, take a look at their website.

 

 

 

A Few Preliminary Thoughts

Photo: “PARRCzar” Rabbi Larry Goldmark introduces Israel Consul General David Siegel before he speaks to the assembly of Reform rabbis in Palm Springs, January 2016. Photo by R. Ruth Adar.

There are some long, thoughtful posts brewing in my head right now, but they need more time to cook. Here are some impressions I have from the various presentations and conversations at the  PARR conference so far:

  1. History flows like a river. Learn to swim, or you will drown.
  2. There is nothing new under the sun, but things rarely happen in exactly the same way twice. When something “comes back around,” that’s interesting, but it is also important to notice what’s new about it. In the same way, when something looks new, I should ask myself, “When have I seen this before?”
  3. We live in the age of Outrage du Jour. It is tempting in so many different aspects of life to get all excited about that which is immediate: the tweet, the facebook post, the latest thing, the newest news. Jewish wisdom, however, urges us to look beyond the immediate to the Big Picture.
  4. Fear is a poor compass. It’s always worth asking what is truly likely to happen, instead of obsessing over the worst case scenario.
  5. Power vs Powerlessness is one heck of an interesting lens through which to view the world, especially if I can manage to look through it calmly.
  6. If you want to learn interesting stuff, seek out people who make everybody uncomfortable.

If any of these snippets stirs up thoughts for you, I hope that you’ll share them with us in the Comments.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving, Jewish Style

Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal Ruler, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

A Jewish day properly begins with gratitude.

Some say Modeh Ani* even before they set a foot on the floor in the morning. Some say it in the synagogue. And even for those who do not say it, it waits in the prayer book.

What is it that we can be grateful for, before standing up, before washing, before the first cup of coffee? We are grateful simply to be alive. “Restored my soul within me” refers to the ancient Jewish belief that sleep is 1/60th of death. We begin the day reminding ourselves that life itself is a gift.

This week Jews in the United States observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There’s a particular joy in sharing a holiday with our non-Jewish neighbors: there’s no need to ask for a special day off and no need to explain it to children as someone else’s holiday.

And yet: Let’s remember that in our tradition, every day is thanksgiving day. The Torah teaches us that life itself  is a precious gift: fragile, transient, infinitely precious. Use it well.

 

*”Modeh” is the masculine form, “modah”the feminine.